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3
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Apr 21, 2012

Quality lacking in London showdown

The Premier League may still be the most celebrated domestic championship in the world, boasting a mystique that ensures it is one of sport's most lucrative brands, yet games like this do little to dispel the theory that its standards are on the slide.

As a misfiring Arsenal side drew a blank with a much-changed Chelsea at a curiously muted Emirates Stadium, the quality of football on show fell short of what is expected of a showdown between these two London giants with the value of the three points on offer failing to inspire either team to match-winning heights.

With misplaced passes aplenty and a general lack of attacking verve on display from two who may well end up representing England in the Champions League next season, this game had all the hallmarks of a scoreless stalemate from first whistle to last, with the big names on show collectively failing to live up to their billing.

Sell-out crowds do not pay the high ticket prices to watch Premier League games as dour as this, with the lack of attacking class on both sides as alarming as it was frustrating on a day when two teams capable of so much more played out the sort of game you would associate more with the defensive-minded Serie A.

Drawing useful conclusions from such an uninspiring match was not easy, but time may eventually confirm that this was a point which helped Arsenal cement their position as the third best team in England's top tier, while Chelsea could argue this was the best result they could hope for amid a demanding run of fixtures that would drain the best of squads.

After their backs-to-the-wall victory against mighty Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday, this was another example of a Chelsea's grit overcoming the ambitions of opponents who were unable to pick their solid defensive unit apart, with John Terry and Gary Cahill superb once more at the heart of their backline.

Despite the efforts of the Blues' defensive talismen, Arsenal came closest to winning this game as they twice rattled the woodwork and generally looked more threatening without ever showing the sort of thrilling, attacking cutting edge they are capable of. Indeed, Robin van Persie's dip in form means they are failing to dig out the sort of wins their skipper has been inventing for them for most of this campaign.

Arsenal's surrender of five points here at Emirates Stadium in the space of two games against Wigan and Chelsea in recent days means they have opened the door for their rivals to test their nerve in the final three games of the season and manager Arsene Wenger was honest enough to concede as much.

"I was surprised with the way Chelsea played this game as they needed to win and I expected us to see an open game as a result," said the downbeat Arsenal boss. "In the end, they stayed tight at the back, played as they will try to do against Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday night and made it hard for us to break them down.

"We didn't find our quick passing in the offensive third and that meant we failed to get in behind Chelsea enough, but I look at the chances created in the game and it's clear that we had all the best opportunities and they did not even create one big chance.

"The defeat against Wigan meant we looked nervous in this game. We knew we dare not lose again and it meant we played with the handbrake on, but you have to give Chelsea some credit for making it hard for us."

Predictably, Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo had a different view of the day's events, as he hit back at Wenger's claim that his side were too negative, justifiably citing the 'crazy schedule' his side have tried to deal with in the last week as a reason for his lack of ambition to win this game.

"We have come off the back of two massive semi-finals in the space of a week and then had to play Arsenal away, so this point is a good one for us," stated Di Matteo. "I changed a lot of players from the Barcelona game and that was natural as you cannot expect the same guys to play one massive game after the next and not begin to feel it a little and I felt we put in a very disciplined performance.

"Now we have three home matches left and one away game and if we can win all four, then we will still have a chance to claim the fourth place in the table, even though we are dealing with a crazy schedule right now."

Having made eight changes to his line-up from the Barcelona triumph, Di Matteo had every right to toast this point, yet it remains to be seen whether a top-four finish is still a realistic prospect after a result that leaves them well off the pace being set by the Gunners and Newcastle.

If they reach the Champions League final and win the FA Cup next month, Chelsea could argue they have enjoyed a more productive season than Arsenal, yet neither of these two great clubs should feel satisfied with a season that sees them languishing some 20 points behind the Premier League leaders.

MAN OF THE MATCH: John Terry. On a day when Di Matteo opted to rest several star names, the captain refused to buckle as he continued to perform heroically. Even with a damaged rib, this leader is trying to carry Chelsea's season towards a glorious conclusion.

ARSENAL VERDICT: This point may well prove to be crucial in their bid to wrap up third spot in the Premier League, but would Arsenal fans rather be in Chelsea's position challenging for two major trophies at this late stage of the season? It is a question only the Gunners' supporters can answer.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Their ability to dig in and get results in games like this confirms that they have a chance to dump Barcelona out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. The Blues may not be as good as they once were, as Frank Lampard readily admits, but that is not halting their ambition to win trophies in the face of adversity.

RVP'S FUTURE: Arsenal skipper Van Persie used his programme notes to clear up why he had been seen at the Barcelona team hotel in London earlier this week, which had sparked speculation that he may be plotting a move to the Nou Camp. "My good friend Ibrahim Afellay plays for Barcelona and I wanted to catch up," he said. "I can't imagine anyone conducting transfer negotiations in these circumstances!"

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